Amidst Flu Epidemic, Philadelphia Columnist Calls Earned Sick Days Proposal “Left Wing”

Before we get to our friend the columnist, let’s address this fact: The United States is experiencing the worst flu epidemic in a decade.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 8.3 percent of all deaths last week were from influenza. The CDC doesn’t track adult deaths due to flu, but we do know that 90 percent of the flu deaths so far this season have been in people over age 65.

The CDC does track flu deaths in children, and those numbers are just as stark. We’re still in January and 29 children have already died during this year’s flu season – that’s compared to 34 for the entire season last year.

It’s in this environment that many in the city of Philadelphia are calling for an earned sick days ordinance, requiring businesses of a certain size to let employees to accrue sick days. This allows even low-wage workers – who are often the ones preparing food, serving drinks, carrying bags, and cleaning hotel rooms – to stay home if they get sick. Otherwise, they are choosing between a docked paycheck or even losing their jobs and coming into work while sick. It creates similar predicaments for parents of sick children, or for those who need to care for a sick relative.

Councilman Bill Greenlee will introduce an earned sick days measure in Philadelphia tomorrow morning, so Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Joseph N. DiStefano lead with the headline “Left-wing Phila Democrats push forced sick leave bill.” DiStefano highlighted the objections of business owners and Mayor Michael Nutter, repeated the debunked but widely-believed claims that workers “are liable to treating sick days as a vacation,” and that an ordinance “could drive some business to locate or expand in…places with no sick leave requirement.”

In response to criticism of his “left wing” label, DiStefano wrote:

if Nutter and Clarke are both Democrats, and [Council President Darrell L.] Clarke is for this pro-labor legislation, and Nutter is against it, that puts Clarke and his allies to the left of Nutter and his supporters.

Now, I don’t want to get into the nitty-gritty of Philadelphia politics, and the connotations associated with “left-wing” could be the subject of a book, let alone a blog post. Here’s what’s clear:

  • The writer is using the term “left-wing” to disparage the measure as “fringe” or “extreme” – there’s no other reason to use the term. Allowing workers to earn sick days is not a radical or even a new concept: such ordinances are in place in the state of Connecticut, as well as San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, DC. A survey by the National Consumers League showed that 92 percent of consumers “think it’s important that servers and cooks don’t work while sick.”
  • Being more pro-worker than Mayor Michael Nutter, who has cut taxes for the wealthiest Philadelphians while threatening pay cuts and forced furloughs on city workers, does not make one “left wing.” After all, Mayor Nutter vetoed the earned sick days ordinance after it passed the City Council last year.
  • DiStefano calls the measure “pro-labor,” as if union workers are the only ones affected by thousands of Philadelphians coming to work in restaurants, coffee shops, and hotels while sick. If a barista has the flu and can’t afford to stay home, and he hands over your morning coffee and your change, you’ll get the flu whether you’re union or nonunion. It’s a further attempt to marginalize the issue.
  • The columnist repeats the claim that workers will treat sick days as vacation days. As if vomiting, diarrhea, high fever, or simply staying home to treat a sick child or relative constitutes a “vacation.” But even without sickness, most workers who have paid sick leave don’t use all of it. DC restaurant owner Andy Shallal, for instance, reported that only about 10 percent of his workers use all of their accrued leave time, and that sick leave accounts for less than 1 percent of his payroll.
  • DiStefano repeats Mayor Nutter’s claim that a sick leave ordinance will “force” businesses to move out of the city. In all those places with earned sick days, this has not come to pass. “They said when we passed sick days in DC, everyone would leave and go to Virginia,” says Shallal, who has opened up two additional restaurants in DC since the ordinance passed.

DiStefano is not the first person to put forth the tired arguments against earned sick days, and he won’t be the last. What’s important to note is that the economic ability to stay home when you’re sick is not a niche issue; it’s not something that only unions want; it’s not radical, “left wing,” or extreme. It’s a logical, pragmatic response to an epidemic. It is popular, effective, and it’s the right thing to do for Philadelphia workers.